The Daily Challenge: Practice

In my short writing career, I have failed to turn in one article. It wasn’t that I forgot. The fact that I hadn’t written it ate me alive.

Something had been off right from the start. I was nervous about writing the article.

Dread started prickling my mind as soon as the 70-page budget document started printing. I pushed it back: I thought I was going to do a big-shot story and find some detail somebody had missed bringing fame to my little-known name.

Maybe the summer air before my freshman year of college was actually getting to me.

I took a risk when I picked up the pitch (on my birthday, no less) to write about how the University of Missouri system’s budget would affect MU and what changes would be implemented. Sure, I had four years of high school  journalism behind me and two years as editor-in-chief, but in reality, I had minimal understanding of what it meant to do a good story or be a good reporter.

After the preliminary research stage, I made a few calls to set up phone interviews. I sent out a few emails with questions, too.

One of my sources got back to me in a few days, and his response made those prickles I had felt earlier sting like a thousand needles. (And I really hate needles). My questions weren’t focused. The ones I had could be for about three different stories. From his tone, I knew I was wasting his time, and I wasn’t getting anywhere with the story.

He should have just said, “Kid, do you even know what you’re doing?”

No. I didn’t. I didn’t know what to look for in a budget. I didn’t know what kind of questions to ask. I didn’t know if the research I was doing was the right one. I didn’t know a lead needed to be 25 words or less.

I didn’t know if I could write this story. Why couldn’t my fingers just fly away at the keyboard and a story appear on Microsoft Word? Where was that inner Lois Lane? Where were those skills? Why wasn’t I good at this?

So, I did what I normally do when situations scare me. I pushed the story to the back of my mind and didn’t look back.

A year later, as a rising sophomore at the Missouri School of Journalism, I’ve forced myself to look back on that miserable July week.Journalism, as with any sort of craft or art, does rely on innate talent or ability. But that’s only 2 percent of  it. The other 98 comes from practice and experience. It’s taken a year for that lesson to really hit me. I can’t expect to work for the New York Times or National Geographic if I haven’t practiced writing or reporting. It’s like trying to make it to Carnegie Hall practicing an hour once a week.

It hit me at the end of the school year, as I was finishing up my community issues story for J2100, the infamous weed-out class.

I’m scared to practice my craft.

Why should I be scared of doing something I love?

I’m scared I’ll make a mistake; my whole system shakes when I do.  And though I do appreciate criticism of my work, I also fear it. Am I really that bad? I think to myself when people tell me what’s wrong with an article.

I’m scared of practice because I fear writing won’t be exhilarating any more. In all honesty, that’s probably the most ridiculous notion to come from my brain.

The silliness comes down to two very special words, though: I’m scared. It’s the fear that keeps me from exploring what I can do and testing the waters of what writing really is.

I find this ironic. I’m a runner.  I’m used to daily practice, and I’ve reaped the fruits of that diligence throughout my running career. My first cross-country race I ran 24:32 for three miles. By senior year, I could run 18:48.

I remember a number of races and practices where I decided to be comfortable with my pace because going faster was scary. It made my stomach drop. Who wants more lactic acid pumping through their legs and burning their lungs?Any hands?

I’ll raise mine to ask myself, “How much better could you have been if you had practiced just a little bit better, if you weren’t so scared?”

I won’t get those years back to retrain.

Any hands to learn to be unafraid of perfecting something you love to do?

I’m raising mine timidly.  I’ve finally decided to shed my journalistic chicken costume. The comfort of not writing everyday is suffocating– I want to inform, to be “the school master of the people.”

In the near future I’ll be a much better writer and reporter. I’ll know what to look for in a budget, what questions to ask and how to write a killer lead.

I’m happy I’ll have to do it a sentence at a time.



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